Review: The Rise of Skywalker

(This review will be spoiler-free, but the comment thread will be allowed to have spoilers. If you’ve not seen the movie yet, tread lightly there.)

In the digital era of music, there have been complaints about something called “Dynamic Range Compression” — a production tactic that levels out the sound in the a recording so, on one hand, you don’t have to suddenly jab at the volume knob when an incredibly quiet passage is followed by an unbelievably loud musical phrase, but on the other hand, you no longer have the highest highs and the lowest lows. The music all gets stuffed into the same middlin’ band, volume-wise, and after a while, consciously or not, all that middlin’ gets noticeable.

Which is where we are with The Rise of Skywalker, and indeed the Disney era of the Star Wars saga.

To be clear: I was perfectly entertained by Skywalker, and I’m not in the least surprised that I was. Disney, bless its infinitely black heart, knows how to entertain; these days one rarely goes to a film from one of the studios that forms Disney’s sprawling cinematic archipelago (Pixar, Marvel, Walt Disney Animation, Lucasfilm) with the fear that one’s about to see an eyebleeding clusterfuck — this is not the studio that’s going to make CATS, for better or for worse. Disney has entertainment down to a science, and you will get your money’s worth: a little song, a little dance, a little Force tug down the pants.

And indeed, over the five Star Wars films that Disney has made since it bought Lucasfilm, it has done something no one else managed with the universe: It’s made it reliably consistent, and consistently entertaining. The first Star Wars trilogy was all over the place in terms of consistency, including within the same film — even The Empire Strikes Back, the best and most consistent of the lot, struggled with this. The prequel trilogy was consistent, but it was consistently bad, an artifact of George Lucas’ own disengagement with the concept of entertaining people other than himself. Disney doesn’t have Lucas’ ambivalence on that score; it gets that when you lay down your money for a Star Wars movie, you want to go somewhere a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, and enjoy it, for a couple of hours at a time. So even the least of the Disney Star Wars films (that would be Solo) is entertaining as heck.

But that comes with a price. That price is, for lack of a better term, Cinematic Dynamic Range Compression. The grand operatic scope and feel of the Star Wars saga, which even the prequels had in abundance (heck, there was even an actual opera scene in the third prequel film) has been squashed down and routed into something like a bus tour of various planets, each with its single big tourist spot, which one enjoys for a bit and gets a selfie at before one is placed back into the bus for the next destination and the next big event. The Disney trilogy is forever hustling us along; we’re on a schedule, folks, keep moving, sorry.

Nowhere is this more evident than The Rise of Skywalker, which, incidentally, actually has its characters visit a tourist event, just to be hustled away on bus. Director JJ Abrams has a checklist of places he needs to get to and people he needs you to see (the fanservice aspect of this film is very very very obvious), and he’s gonna hit them on time, because apparently he gets paid for checking things off the list, rather than for letting his story have a moment to breathe. Breathe on your own time! We’re walking! There is enough plot for three films here, possibly because Abrams and his various screenwriters are wrapping up not just one trilogy but three. There’s no time for time.

Which is a shame. There are a lot of moments in Skywalker that, while affecting, could have been even more so if they hadn’t been so gosh darn rushed. The prequel trilogy had excellent actors who weren’t utilized fully because as a director Lucas didn’t know what to do with people; the Disney trilogy has excellent actors who aren’t utilized fully because they simply don’t have the time to process, onscreen, the overwhelming emotions they’re supposed to be having. Abrams the director steps on several of those moments because apparently he’s got another plot point he’s gonna cram in. It’s deeply rare, especially these days, that I say a film should be longer — Jesus, they really don’t need to be any longer — but Skywalker genuinely could have benefited from an extra ten or fifteen minutes, just to let its actors do their jobs.

But I don’t think that’s what you hire JJ Abrams for. Abrams has six films to his credit; five of them are parts of franchises — Mission Impossible, Star Trek and now Star Wars — and the sixth could best be described as the bastard child of ET and Close Encounters. Abrams isn’t bad with actors, and has a light touch with humorous moments that I very much appreciate. But he was hired to shepherd a very expensive film with many moving parts saddled with an almost impossible set of cultural and financial expectations, because he’s shown that he’s actually good at it (poor Colin Trevorrow). The craft of acting might understandably take a back seat to those off-screen realities, even if ultimately it doesn’t do the movie itself any favors as its own thing.

Looking back, I realize that my observations about Skywalker are very much of a piece with my observations on Avengers: Endgame, another Disney film this year which was tasked with wrapping up not just a trilogy of films (well, a quadrilogy in the case of Endgame), but an entire universe to that point — down to the allusions to a tour and the phrase “we’re on a schedule, here.” Both Skywalker and Endgame are films that can’t and don’t exist for their own sake — if you came to either without being steeped heavily in their respective universe’s lore you would be hopelessly, hilariously, lost — and to that end the miracle is that they work to any significant degree. Both of these films are ungainly and in some ways existentially sad cinematic beasts, never to be appreciated out of a context that will now recede further and further into time. “The thing about a dancing pig is not that it dances well, but that it dances at all.” Disney has given us two dancing pigs in the same year.

And they both… dance well enough! I enjoyed my last swing through the Skywalker saga, and with these characters, and would happily watch it again, even as I acknowledge that it’s rushed and haphazard, and dynamically compressed in that familiar and safe way Disney entertainments are and will almost certainly will continue to be, for Disney is too big at this point to mess with its own formula in any significant way (maybe they’ll let 20th Century Fox be the place where they say “fuck it, let’s throw this against a wall and see if it sticks,” but I seriously doubt it). I was entertained, and having now seen eleven Star Wars films between the ages of 8 and 50 years old, I appreciate when a Star Wars film is consistently entertaining, because enough of them weren’t. And if this is indeed the end of the Skywalker family as a central focus of the Star Wars universe, it ends well enough.

But I would have been okay with some more dynamic range, Disney. “Ending well enough” isn’t the same as “the best it could have been.” The Rise of Skywalker could have been better, if you would have just let it breathe.

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